A Conversation with Earth and Planetary Sciences
Professor Steven Stanley
PHOTO BY WILL KIRK/HIPS
Students typically don't get chewed out for getting high SAT scores, but that's exactly what happened to Earth and planetary sciences professor Steven Stanley in the late 1950s. When the headmaster at the University School in suburban Cleveland saw Stanley's scores, he wanted to know why Stanley hadn't been getting all As. Stanley had no explanation, nor would he for another 30 years. Neither of them knew then that Stanley was struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Now 63, Stanley wasn't diagnosed with ADD until the age of 46. Suddenly, it all made sense-the extra study hours, the difficulty memorizing complex facts, and why he had to study to the point of extreme fatigue with the door closed, despite high achievement and IQ scores. "I hated school," he says.
The further he progressed in his education, the more he achieved, eventually becoming a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a leader in the field of paleobiology. But the pain of those early struggles lingers in his mind. As a teacher, he takes those experiences with him into the classroom each day.
Writer Jeanne Johnson talked with Stanley recently about his approach to teaching and how his experiences have shaped his teaching style.
You describe yourself as a paleontologist, a paleobiologist, and a geobiologist. Can you explain the meaning of those terms?
As a paleontologist, I study the fossil record, but my work is heavily biological, which makes it paleobiology. In effect, I try to bring extinct creatures to life. And I study how the history of life has related to environmental changes. That's geobiology.
Did you set out to teach, or was teaching a by-product of pursuing your studies and research interests?
In a sense, teaching is a by-product. I love research. But in grad school at Yale a visiting professor gave me the assignment of lecturing and teaching a lab from scratch, and I learned that I enjoyed it-particularly using hands-on activities and fossil materials in the lab.
You've been very open about your struggles with ADD and the fact that you now take medication. Has having ADD influenced your teaching approach?
For me, the educational process became more enjoyable once I got into grad school. That's when concepts and analysis became more important than retaining and regurgitating information. So as a teacher, I ask a lot of "why" questions. I particularly enjoy courses that involve discussion because that's intellectually stimulating for both the students and me. I enjoy the give-and-take.
I believe that any academic subject can be interesting if you bring it to life and make it conceptual by showing why it's significant. Curious minds will latch onto anything if it is presented in the right way.
What are your research interests?
I've worked on all sorts of living and extinct organisms, from single-celled algae to human ancestors. I began my career interpreting the evolutionary history of mollusks, but then I also became an evolutionary theorist. I analyze rates and trends and patterns of evolution.
Right now, I'm studying how changes in seawater chemistry have influenced which forms of marine life with mineralized skeletons have flourished at certain times in earth history.
How does your research influence your teaching?
Being involved in research gives you a certain level of energy, so that you don't become intellectually numb, just saying the same thing year after year, but you're able to offer fresh information. Also, being involved and even talking to people at seminars and conferences helps keep me on top of things.
How do students influence your research?
When you teach you have to learn. Students have ideas, they ask questions, and you interact. They keep me alive and creative.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching?
I really enjoy it when I feel that I can help someone get on track personally and professionally. That has happened a number of times, where I feel that I've really made a difference in someone's life, helping to shape his or her career.